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Release Date: 08/27/1999
Contact Information: Peyton Fleming, EPA Press Office 617.918.1008 Roseanne Pawelec, MDPH 617.624.5006

BOSTON - Waterfowl samples collected last summer on the Housatonic River in western Massachusetts show elevated concentrations of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) - believed to be among the highest levels reported in the country, according to sampling results finalized this week by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The duck breast tissue samples had average PCB concentrations of 7.1 parts per million. When adjusted for fat content in accordance with U.S. Food and Drug Administration practices, the PCB concentrations averaged 648 ppm. The tolerance level for poultry set by the U.S. FDA is 3 ppm fat content, making these results over 200 times higher than the national tolerance level. The highest PCB levels - 3,700 parts per million adjusted for fat - were found in the breast tissue of a six-month old wood duck.

Concerned by the new sampling results, EPA and the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection have asked the Massachusetts Department of Public Health to evaluate the need for a public health advisory on waterfowl consumption. EPA is also working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to alert other Northeast states in the waterfowl "flyway," or migration route, of the results.

"Given the high PCB levels and upcoming duck hunting season, we are moving as quickly as possible to make the public aware of these results and provide some guidance on the appropriateness of consuming waterfowl," said John P. DeVillars, EPA's New England Administrator.

"These test results are further evidence of the serious damage to the Housatonic River," added Bob Durand, secretary of the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. "We must expedite cleanup efforts to protect wildlife habitat along the river from further PCB contamination."

"The Massachusetts Department of Public Health has reviewed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency data and is issuing a provisional waterfowl consumption advisory for Massachusetts. (See attached advisory) The department also reminds residents and local sports license holders of western Massachusetts that MDPH has a toll free hot line, 1-800-240-4266, established two years ago, which offers Housatonic area residents concerned about exposure, interviews and free blood tests to determine exposure levels," said MDPH Commissioner, Dr. Howard Koh. Koh added, "It is important to remind consumers that all duck served and sold in Massachusetts restaurants and food stores is required to come from U.S. Department of Agriculture regulated processing plants."

Last summer, EPA scientists collected 25 waterfowl (wood ducks and mallards) from a PCB-contaminated portion of the Housatonic River, just north of Woods Pond in Lenox. An additional 20 ducks were collected from an area uncontaminated by PCBs in the same watershed - specifically, Three Mile Pond in Sheffield.

EPA scientists conducting the duck study observed that the birds collected on the Housatonic River had spent the season nesting, feeding and rearing their young within the study area. The majority of the birds collected at Three Mile Pond came in from elsewhere as part of their fall migration shortly before being collected. Most of the birds collected from both areas were birds that had been born that spring.

All of the ducks collected from the Housatonic had PCB levels in excess of the 3 ppm FDA poultry limit. The results indicate that waterfowl nesting and feeding within the contaminated area of the Housatonic are accumulating PCBs in their tissue. Wood ducks and mallards feed on plants and small invertebrates.

This week's sampling results are one part of EPA's extensive investigation of PCB contamination and its impacts in the Lower Housatonic River. The investigation includes a detailed ongoing assessment of the risks to human health and the environment from PCBs and other contaminants in the lower river. (A similar evaluation has already been done for the upper two-mile stretch of the river, which is now being targeted for cleanup activities.)

The health and environmental risk assessments for the lower river are expected to be completed next fall. Upon completion, the risk assessments will be peer reviewed by outside experts. These assessments and the outcome from the peer reviews will then be used to help EPA determine future cleanup decisions for the lower river.

PCBs, a group of organic compounds used for many decades in electrical transformers as a coolant and insulator, are a probable human carcinogen. PCBs are extremely persistent in the environment because they break down very slowly and bioaccumulate in the fatty tissue of fish, birds and mammals, including humans. General Electric used PCBs for manufacturing and servicing of electrical transformers at its Pittsfield facility from the 1930s through 1977, the same year Congress banned their use and distribution.

The table below summarizes the PCB concentrations found in the Housatonic study area and compares the results to the PCB levels found in mallards at the Lower Fox River Superfund Site in Wisconsin, another water body heavily contaminated with PCBs. Wisconsin is one of the two states (the other being New York) that currently have a waterfowl advisory for PCBs in effect. PCB concentrations are presented in parts per million, not adjusted for fat content. The average PCB concentration is listed first, with the maximum PCB level in parenthesis.

Comparison of PCBs in Duck Tissue
reported in ppm
Housatonic River, MA Three Mile Pond, MA Lower Fox River,WI
AverageMaximum Average Maximum Average Maximum
Breast Tissue 7.1 19.4 0.6 3.4 0.4 3.5
Liver Tissue 10.6 38.6 0.20.7 NA